PRIMAL ELEMENTS : THE ORAL TRADITION
Bhutas in Oral Ayurvedic Tradition
The general belief among those influenced by western education is that Ayurveda mainly constitutes innumerable medicinal formulations and information about the natural products to cure ailments and diseases. The more important aspect of Ayurveda is its system of totality and the cosmic view of looking at the human body and its functions. Ayurveda's preventive and curative methods are based upon establishing 'inner' and 'outer' harmony. The importance of medicines described in Ayurveda is secondary as they are subject to change depending on place and time, and their pharmaceutical properties are dependent upon the prevalent environmental conditions. The most important contribution of Ayurveda is its fundamental theory of equilibrium based on the three humours. This tradition continues in many Indian homes even today.
The bhutas or the five fundamental elements (ether, air, fire, water and earth) constitute the material reality of the universe including the physical self. They are organized in a variety of forms, shapes and proportions which account for the diversity of our phenomenal world. The cause of life and consciousness, however, is jiva (soul), which is without any substance. It is essence or energy. It is a part of the universal soul which is the animating principle of the cosmic substance. The physical body undergoes changes with time and decays, while the jiva does not undergo any change and is indestructible. At the time of death, the jiva leaves the material body and the five elements constituting the physical form return to their main pool.
All physical and mental functions of the body are governed by three humours — vata, pitta and kapha. These humours are derived from the five elements of which the body and the rest of the universe are constituted. For cosmic balance and harmony, it is essential that the five elements are in equilibrium as their imbalance causes catastrophes. Similarly, for physical and mental health it is essential that the humours are in equilibrium. Their imbalance and derangement (termed vitiation) leads to various disorders. The function of each humour is related to the fundamental element(s) from which it originates. Vata is derived from ether and air, and, like these elements, is all pervasive, light, dry, abundant, cold, mobile and rough. It is responsible for the entire body movements and mind activities, blood circulation, respiration, excretion, speech, sensation, touch, hearing, feelings like fear, anxiety, grief, enthusiasm etc., natural urges, formation of foetus, sexual act and retention. Pitta is derived from the fire and is hot. It is also characteristic in being sharp, sour, pungent and has a fleshy smell. Pitta is responsible for vision, digestion, hunger, thirst, heat regulation, softness, luster, cheerfulness, intellect and sexual vigour. Kapha is from water and earth and like these elements, is soft, solid, dull, sweet, heavy, cold, slimy, unctuous and immobile. It constitutes all the solid structure of the body and is responsible for unctuousness, binding, firmness, heaviness, sexual potency, strength, forbearance and restraint.
Since everything in this manifest world is derived from the five basic elements, all have humoral qualities. Nutrition, environment, weather, social and psychological behaviour — all these alter our bodily humours constantly. Varying degrees and intensity of humours determine the basic human constitution.
Longevity and quality of life depends upon two principle factors — daiva and puruskara. Daiva is the result of the deeds or karma of the previous lives and puruskara is what we achieve in this life. The basic constitution of each person at birth are due to daiva. Through one’s deeds in the present life, that is puruskara, one is capable of improving one’s bad health and ruining one’s good health. The basic principle of health is to create an equilibrium of the three humours with personal effort and knowledge. It is done by acting according to one’s constitution and by living in harmony with weather, climate, nutrition, personal behaviour, social environment, etc. This harmony is created by an appropriate knowledge of one’s constitution as well as with the knowledge of one’s surroundings. It will be soon clear how all this is related to the five elements.
Warm and dry climate will give rise to pitta as these are the characteristics of fire. Cold and humid climate gives rise to kapha, and so does living in dark humid rooms with lack of light and sunshine. Hot dry winds will enhance vata as these are the characteristics of air. Deserts are vata-pitta dominating, whereas mountains are vata-kapha dominating. Anger enhances pitta whereas fear enhances vata. Excess of sleep vitiates kapha, lack of sleep increases vata. These will make a never-ending list. It can be generally stated that these fundamental facts are reflected in our daily lives, not just in India, but all over the world. This ancient wisdom is also reflected in the languages. The words ‘brilliant’, ‘bright’, ‘shining’, etc., are used to appreciate one’s intellectual capacities and power of assimilation. Sexual vigour is universally symbolized with fire. Similarly, the words ‘radiant’, ‘lustrous’, ‘glowing’, ‘beaming’, etc., are used to describe one’s complexion. With subdued pitta, even an intelligent person will lack power of assimilation and intellect. A beautiful person in the conventional sense may look unattractive without the luster of pitta.
Many of the expressions in English can be traced to the cosmic laws of the bhutas and the humours, 'to get cold with fear', 'to get stiff or shiver with fear', 'to get a dry throat or to tremble with certain emotions', 'to be overwhelmed and be unable to speak', etc. All these are vata-related emotions and vata-related functions.
No phrases can be found for kapha as this humour is not related to activities but to binding, firmness, heaviness and inactivity. However, the kapha-related effects are well-known. In Western Europe, ‘autumn depression’ is very frequent. Autumn is cold and humid with often covered sky and lack of sunshine. One is forced to stay indoors. These are kapha-promoting factors. Kapha is derived from water and earth and vitiation of this humour causes inertness, lassitude and depression. If appropriate measures are not taken, the humour vitiates and one suffers from its negative effects on the body and the mind.
The relationship of bhutas and the medicinal practices in India can be traced back from the Vedic period. Prayers were addressed to the god of wind and healing mantras were chanted by the pandit-cum-vaidya at child birth. As mentioned earlier, the formation of the foetus is the function of vata. "The way wind and mind move fast, the way birds move around in the sky without any hindrance, similarly, oh ten months old baby, you come out from the uterus and let the placenta also fall out." In this citation, we have the mention of both wind and sky, the movements of the mind, the other movements in nature and the physiological process of child birth. These physical and mental functions are vata-related and there is a mention of the two formative elements of vata.
Vata (the wanderer) also called vayu (the purifier), is the breath of life (prana). It is marut (without whom one dies); it is anila (one lives with it); it is pavana (the cleanser). In the living Hindu tradition, Hanuman, the god born from wind, is worshipped. Prayers are specially addressed to him for courage, fearlessness and strength. All these qualities are the attributes of vata. In certain parts of India, Tuesday is the day for Hanuman’s worship and some people observe a semi-fast on this day. During this fast, salt is prohibited, grain food is taken only once a day and milk and fruits are taken. This diet also helps to keep vata in equilibrium. Similarly, the fast of Friday is attributed to the goddess of satisfaction. On this day one is supposed to take a light meal and strictly avoid sour foods. Sour enhances pitta, which is from fire and devouring in nature. It is responsible for the digestion and assimilation of food in the body. This fast is on Friday because sukra, the bright one, is symbolic of the element fire. The shining quality is the quality of agni and worshipping it, one gains brilliance, intelligence and beauty. The worship of these objects is also done to gain fame. All these ceremonies and rituals are an integral part of tradition and it is not possible to analyze them separately and neither are they meant for such an analysis. As has been already stated, everything is undergoing a constant change and is interrelated and interconnected. It is not possible to separate the Ayurvedic tradition from religious, social, ritualistic and ceremonial aspects of life. Although, the term holistic has been often used in the context of health and medicine in the recent years, in the true sense holistic health is not possible without a holistic way of life.
Kapha is responsible for the solid structure of the body and derives from water and earth. These two elements are worshipped and are important in various ceremonies and rituals. In traditional health care practices, these elements form a large part of healing practices. Worship of certain trees and medicinal plants, planting of certain trees (specially peepal, holy fig), wearing gems, seeds, etc., visiting holy places specially the confluence of rivers, worshipping mountains, are some of the frequent practices. Worship of earth, related to the fertility and sexual potency, is one of the attributes of kapha.
Ayurvedic tradition of nutrition is alive in most Indian homes. Intuitively and spontaneously people add a bit of coriander in their potato-based dishes, garlic and ginger in cauliflower dishes, cumin and pepper in yogurt, tamarind to digest lentils and beans, ajwain in fried foods. This is basically done to nourish with a diet which is balanced not only in its quantity and variety but also by universal laws of harmony to keep the body and mind in tune with the cosmic rhythm.
Similarly, an Indian kitchen is a little apothecary and usually an elder of the family has the knowledge of using various grains, spices, herbs and minerals for curing minor ailments. In their own way, people have the knowledge of the pharmaceutical properties of the substances they are using. Indeed their knowledge is limited to the practice of these products only and is not as refined as described in the scriptures; but the fundamentals of it lie in the concept of five elements.
Classification of pharmaceutical properties of the substances is done according to six major rasas which are derived from the five elements. Rasa is the complete sensuous experience belonging to one particular category. For example, if you eat something sour, you know that it is sour because of a particular taste on your tongue. Tongue only qualifies the taste. It, however, does not mean that the effect of the sour is limited to your tongue. Tongue is only an identifier of the sour, but its effect is felt in the whole body. It has an immediate effect on pitta. It is like fuel. It increases agni in the body. Pitta further effects so many physiological and psychological functions of the body. Thus, pharmaceutical properties of the substances are related to the humours. Both rasas and humours are from the five elements.
The five bhutas, three humours and six rasas have similar action and are interconnected. It is very easy to understand their logic. However, in day-to-day existence, where this mode of thinking and acting is a part of life, their logic is not sought. The sun god is offered water every morning to keep a cosmic equilibrium in a symbolic manner. Somebody suffering from excessive pitta, whether it is from staying too much in the sun or eating too many sour, salty or pungent food or chemical drugs or from anger, is cured simply by drinking few glasses of cold water, a cold bath or by the intake of substances with bitter, sweet or astringent rasas. If we put sand on the fire, the fire diminishes. Similarly, an excess of kapha which is from water and earth, diminishes the bodily fire, causes lack of hunger and other symptoms of vitiated pitta. This equilibrium is reestablished again by hot, pungent and salty food.
In the oral Ayurvedic tradition, the terminology of the three humours may not be exact and may vary from one region to another, but their basic functions are understood very exactly and their principles are followed effectively.
It is very interesting to note that the familial wisdom of Ayurveda, which is as ancient as the Vedas, and whose rationale is so explicitly been given by our great physicians and sages like Caraka, Susruta and others of those times, is often distrusted by those influenced by western education. Ayurveda is being taken out of its cosmic context and extracts and chemicals from Ayurvedic drugs are tested in laboratory on animals for proving their validity. Besides, people suffering from inborn disorders get a sense of satisfaction when their ailments are proven with machines with exactly-set standards and highly-sophisticated foreign terms. Let us take an example of irregular blood pressure, which may sometimes be caused due to dry and cold weather or stressful circumstances. At the initial stages, it is easy to cure sometimes only with an appropriate quantity of water and avoiding certain food stuffs and life-styles. A wise person or astrologer may also tell the ailing person to wear a special gem or seeds, pray to god Hanuman and observe a fast in his reverence. As already explained, this fast recommends all what brings equilibrium of vata. Besides, this also gives the patient the complete therapy recommended by Ayurveda, which works at the rational, psychological and spiritual levels. But the moment the patient begins to live in the belief that he/she is a patient of blood pressure, the ailment becomes grave. The healing capacity is diminished with fear, and fear further enhances vata, and excess of vata enhances the blood-related disorder. As vata is derived from ether and air, which are mobile and all-pervasive, all functions of the body which are mobile and are everywhere in the body are the domain of vata. Taking the above example, with increased vata, the so-called ‘patient of blood pressure’ may also become a prey to insomnia, as sleep is also an attribute of vata. A holistic oral tradition enables one to break away from a vicious cycle of inborn ailments which can be cured simply by keeping oneself in harmony with the cosmic rhythm. Inner imbalance increases one’s vulnerability to external disorders and enhances several degenerative processes in the body.
The oral tradition of health care intrinsically takes into consideration the social, psychological and economical aspects. In the familial tradition, health care becomes the responsibility of each family member and they take care of each other. This provides psychological therapy, healing and comfort. The old people take care of the younger ones with their wisdom and provide them comfort and care; whereas the younger people help the old with their resources and energy. Oral tradition of Ayurveda, based on the concept of balance and harmony of the bhutas, are preventive in their approach and help reduce the costs of health care considerably.
Just as vata, pitta, kapha are the bodily humours, rajas, sattva, tamas denote the qualities and activities of the mind. Thinking, planning, taking decisions, etc., are the rajas activities of mind. During sleep, the mental activity is termed tamas as the mind is closed to new knowledge. Emotions like greed, jealousy, laziness, paining and killing, telling lies, stealing, etc., are also the tamas qualities of mind. Sattva activities of the mind are those which lead us towards equilibrium, truth and self-realization. These are the qualities of self-discipline, self-restraint, control over the senses, concentration practices and pranayama. Rajas is related to vata and hence to the elements ether and air. Sattva is related to pitta and hence to the element fire. Tamas is related to kapha and hence to the elements water and earth.
In everyday life, tamas balances rajas in certain life situations like over-activity with laziness. Our daily activities cannot be dissociated from tamas even as a very ‘good’ and ‘moral human being’. For example, eating meat involves killing and tormenting. There are times when we have to tell lies to handle a situation. Sattva is also a part of living as nearly all people in the world try to find peace within themselves through various means like religion, nature worship or other devotional ways.
In the oral tradition of India, a balance between these three qualities is very important and is an integral part of the familial education. In traditional homes, a child grows up learning breathing and concentration exercises, along with training in worldly activities and keeping away from emotions like greed, anger, excessive attachment, etc. A particular state of mind or domination of one of the three qualities is not only limited to the activities of mind but to the whole way of life. A person with predominance or rajas will not only have a hectic mental activity but also a hectic way of living and excess of vata. Similarly, tamas qualities give rise to excess of kapha and related disorders. A person leading a worldly existence, if only preoccupied with means of salvation rejecting his activities and essential duties, will suffer from physical and mental disorders arisen from this imbalance.
In the living tradition of Ayurveda, these qualities have a great importance as they not only apply to the activities of the mind but practically to all other aspects of life. Food, life-style, colours, and, above all, the personality and nature of a person, are described in terms of these qualities.
It is very difficult to separate oral from textual tradition, as oral is only a simpler, practical and interesting version of the textual. For example, when a woman gets pregnant, after a few weeks, a ceremony is performed and special dishes are prepared on that day. This ceremony is done to bring in her the consciousness of being temporarily physiologically different, to teach her to have sattvic state of mind and to prescribe her a special diet which includes certain herbs to give her strength and food supplements. All these instructions are not different from what is written in Caraka Samhita. When all this is taught to her in an atmosphere of festivity and done as a ritual, it becomes more fascinating, interesting and easier to follow. It becomes a familial responsibility rather than medical.
The oral tradition of medicine is interwoven in the lives of the masses and is the results of thousands of years' effort of the sages. Every effort should be made to preserve this and save ourselves from the impact of western mechanistic view of life which is apparently illogical, and, in medicine, it ignores health and treats only the disease. We cannot fit Ayurveda in the concepts of modern medicine and should do all to keep our tradition of worshipping the sun and fire, rivers, mountains and trees and the great, powerful and all-pervasive wind and sky, let these cosmic forces maintain an equilibrium of this cosmic energy in us.
In medicine and health, textual tradition is extremely important, as without it we could not have had such an enriched tradition as we have today. But for this enrichment, oral tradition played a tremendous part. We have enriched our knowledge of medicine in the past with methods from the middle-east and Persia. In fact, much of this knowledge is lost in their home countries. We could preserve this because we have both oral and textual tradition of Ayurveda which is not only concerned with the preservation of human life but includes the whole cosmos of which the human beings are a tiny part.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi